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       Shift, p.31

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 31

 

  He was four levels down, formulating a dozen such plans, when the blast went off.

  The great stairwell lurched as if thrown sideways. Mission slammed against the rail and nearly went over. He wrapped his arms around the trembling steel and held on.

  There was a shriek, a chorus of groans. He watched, his head out in the space beyond the railing, as the landing two levels below twisted away from the staircase. The metal sang and cried out as it was ripped free and went tumbling into the depths.

  More than one body plummeted after. The receding figures performed cartwheels in space.

  Mission tore himself away from the sight. A few steps down from him, a woman remained on her hands and knees, looking up at Mission with wild and frightened eyes. There was a distant crash, impossibly far below.

  I don’t know, he wanted to say. There was that question in her eyes, the same one pounding in his skull, echoing with the sound of the blast. What the hell just happened? Is this it? Has it begun?

  He considered running up, away from the explosion, but there were screams coming from below and a porter had a duty to those on the stairwell in need. He helped the woman to her feet and bid her upward. Already the smell of something acrid and the haze of smoke were filling the air. ‘Go,’ he urged, and then he spiralled down against the sudden flow of upward traffic. Cam was down there. Where his friend had gone with the package and where the blast had occurred were still coincidence in Mission’s rattled mind.

  The landing below held a crush of people. Residents and shopkeeps crowded out of the doors and fought for a spot at the rail that they might gaze over at the wreckage one flight further down. Mission fought his way through, yelling Cam’s name, keeping an eye out for his friend. A bedraggled couple staggered up to the crowded landing with hollow eyes, clutching the railing and each other. He didn’t see Cam anywhere.

  He raced down five turns of the central post, his normally deft feet stumbling on the slick treads, around and around. It’d been the level Cam was heading towards, right? Six down. Level one-sixteen. He would be okay. He must be okay. And then the sight of those people tumbling through the air flashed in Mission’s mind. It was an image he knew he’d never forget. Surely Cam wasn’t among them. The boy was late or early to everything, never right on time.

  He made the last turn, and where the next landing should have been was empty space. The rails of the great spiral staircase had been ripped outward before parting. A few of the steps sagged away from the central post, and Mission could feel a pull towards the edge, the void clawing at him. There was nothing there to stop him from going over. The steel felt slick beneath his boots.

  Across a gap of torn and twisted steel, the doorway to one-sixteen was missing. In its place stood a pocket of crumbling cement and dark iron bars bent outward like hands reaching for the vanished landing. White powder drifted down from the ceiling beyond the rubble. Unbelievably, there were sounds beyond the veil of dust: coughs and shouts. Screams for help.

  ‘Porter!’ someone yelled from above.

  Mission carefully slid to the edge of the sloping and bent steps. He held the railing where it had been torn free. It was warm to the touch. Leaning out, he studied the crowd fifty feet above him at the next landing, searching for the person who had called out for him.

  Someone pointed when they spotted him leaning out, spotted the ’chief around his neck.

  ‘There he is!’ a woman shrieked, one of the mad-eyed women who had staggered past him as he hurried down, one of those who had survived. ‘The porter did it!’ she yelled.

  42

  • Silo 18 •

  MISSION TURNED AND ran as the stairway thundered and clanged with the descending mob. He stumbled downward, a hand on the inner post, watching for the return of the railing. So much had been pulled away. The stairs were unstable from the damage. He had no idea why he was being chased. It took a full turn of the staircase for the railing to reappear and for him to feel safe at such speeds. It took just as long to realize that Cam was dead. His friend had delivered a package, and now he was dead. He and many others. One glance at his blue ’chief and someone above must’ve thought it was Mission who’d made the delivery. It very nearly had been.

  Another crowd at landing one-seventeen. Tear-streaked faces, a woman trembling, her arms wrapped around herself, a man covering his face, all looking up or down beyond the rails. They had seen the wreckage tumble past. Mission hurried on. Lower Dispatch on one-twenty was the only haven between him and Mechanical. He hurried there as a violent scream approached from above and came much too fast.

  Mission started and nearly fell as the wailing person flew towards him. He waited for someone to tackle him from behind, but the sound whizzed past beyond the rail. Another person. Falling, alive and screaming, plummeting towards the depths. The loose steps and empty space above had claimed one of those chasing him.

  He quickened his pace, leaving the inner post for the outer rail where the curve of the steps was broader and smoother, where the force of his descent tugged him against the steel bar. Here, he could move faster. He tried not to think of what would happen if he came across a gap in the steel. He ran, smoke stinging his eyes, the clang and clamour of his own feet and that of the others above, not realising at first that the haze in the air wasn’t from the ruin he had left behind. The smoke all around him was rising.

  43

  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD’S BREAKFAST OF powdered eggs and shredded potatoes had long grown cold. He rarely touched the food brought down by Thurman and Erskine, preferring instead the bland stuff in the unlabelled silver cans he had discovered among the storeroom’s vacuum-sealed crates. It wasn’t just the matter of trust – it was the rebelliousness of it all, the empowerment that came from taking command of his own survival. He stabbed a yellowish-orange gelatinous blob that he assumed had once been part of a peach and put it in his mouth. He chewed, tasting nothing. He pretended it tasted like a peach.

  Across the wide table, Anna fiddled with the dials on her radio and sipped loudly from a mug of cold coffee. A nest of wires ran from a black box to her computer, and a soft hiss of static filled the room.

  ‘It’s too bad we can’t get a better station,’ Donald said morosely. He speared another wedge of mystery fruit and popped it into his mouth. Mango, he told himself, just for variety.

  ‘No station is the best station,’ she said, referring to her hope that the towers of silo forty and its neighbours would remain silent. She had tried to explain what she was doing to cut off any unlikely survivors, but little of it made any sense to Donald. A year ago, supposedly, silo forty had hacked the system. It was assumed to have been a rogue head of IT. No one else could be expected to possess the expertise and access required of such a feat. By the time the camera feeds were cut, every failsafe had already been severed. Attempts had been made to terminate the silo, but there was no way to verify them. It became obvious these attempts had failed when the darkness started to spread to other silos.

  Thurman, Erskine and Victor had been woken according to protocol, one after the other. Further failsafes proved ineffective, and Erskine worried the hacking had progressed to the level of the nanos, that the machines in the air were being reprogrammed, that everything was in jeopardy. After much cajoling, Thurman had convinced the other two that Anna could help. Her research at MIT had been in wireless harmonics; remote charging technology; the ability to assume control of electronics via radio.

  She’d eventually been able to commandeer the collapse mechanism of the afflicted silos. Donald still had nightmares thinking about it. While she described the process, he had studied the wall schematic of a standard silo. He had pictured the blasts that freed the layers of heavy concrete between the levels, sending them like dominoes down to the bottom, crushing everything and everyone in-between. Stacks of concrete fifty feet thick had been cut loose to turn entire societies into ru
bble. These underground buildings had been designed from the beginning so they could be brought down like any other – and remotely. That such a failsafe was even needed seemed as sick to Donald as the solution was cruel.

  All that now remained of those silos was the hiss and crackle of their dead radios, a chorus of ghosts. The silo heads in the rest of the facilities hadn’t even been told of the calamity. There would be no red Xs on their schematics to haunt their days. The various heads had little contact with each other as it was. The greater worry was of the panic spreading.

  But Victor had known. And Donald suspected it was this heavy burden that had led him to take his own life, rather than any of the theories Thurman had offered. Thurman was so in awe of Victor’s supposed brilliance that he searched for purpose behind his suicide, some conspiratorial cause. Donald was verging on the sad realisation that humanity had been thrown to the brink of extinction by insane men in positions of power following one another, each thinking the others knew where they were going.

  He took a sip of tomato juice from a punctured can and reached for two pieces of paper amid the carpet of notes and reports around his keyboard. The fate of silo eighteen supposedly rested on something in these two pages. They were copies of the same report. One was a virgin printout of the report he’d written long ago on the fall of silo twelve. Donald barely remembered writing it. And now he had stared at it so long, the meaning had been squeezed out of it, like a word that, repeated too often, devolves into mere noise.

  The other copy showed the notes Victor had scrawled across the face of this report. He had used a red pen, and someone upstairs had managed to pull just this colour off in order to make both versions more legible. By copying the red, however, they had also transferred a fine mist and a few splatters of his blood. These marks were gruesome reminders that the report had been atop Victor’s desk in the final moments of his life.

  After three days of study, Donald was beginning to suspect that the report was nothing more than a scrap of paper. Why else write across the top of it? And yet Victor had told Thurman several times that the key to quelling the violence in silo eighteen lay right there, in Donald’s report. Victor had argued for Donald to be pulled from the deep freeze, but hadn’t been able to get Erskine or Thurman to side with him. So this was all Donald had: a liar’s account of what a dead man had said.

  Liars and dead men – two parties unskilled at dispensing the truth.

  The scrap of paper with the red ink and rust-coloured bloodstains offered little help. There were a few lines that resonated, however. They reminded Donald of how horoscopes were able to land vague and glancing blows, which gave credence to all their other feints.

  The One who remembers had been written in bold and confident letters across the centre of the report. Donald couldn’t help but feel that this referred to him and his resistance to the medication. Hadn’t Anna said that Victor spoke of him frequently, that he wanted him awake for testing or questioning? Other musings were vague and dire in equal measure. This is why, Victor had written. Also: An end to them all.

  Had he meant the why of his suicide or the why of silo eighteen’s violence? And an end to all of what?

  In many ways, the cycle of violence in silo eighteen was no different than what took place elsewhere. Beyond being more severe, it was the same waxing and waning of the mobs, of each generation revolting against the last, a fifteen-to-twenty-year cycle of bloody upheaval.

  Victor had written much on the subject. He’d left reports behind about everything from primate behaviour to the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There was one that Donald found especially disturbing. It detailed how primates came of age and attempted to overthrow their fathers, the alpha males. It told of chimps that committed infanticide, males snatching the young from their mothers and taking them into the trees where their arms and legs were ripped, limb from limb, from their small bodies. Victor had written that this put the females back into oestrus. It made room for the next generation.

  Donald had a hard time believing any of this was true. He had a harder time making sense of a report about frontal lobes and how long they took to develop in humans. Maybe this was important to unravelling some mystery. Or perhaps it was the ravings of a man losing his mind – or a man discovering his conscience and coming to grips with what he’d done to the world.

  Donald studied his old report and searched through Victor’s notes, looking for the answer. He fell into a routine that Anna had long ago perfected. They slept, ate and worked. They emptied bottles of Scotch at night, one burning sip at a time, and left them standing like factory smokestacks amid the diagram of silos. In the mornings, they took turns in the shower, Anna brazen with her nakedness, Donald wishing she wouldn’t be. Her presence became an intoxicant from the past, and Donald began to assemble a new reality in his mind: he and Anna were working on one more secret project together; Helen was back in Savannah; Mick wasn’t making it to the meetings; Donald couldn’t raise either of them because his phone wouldn’t work.

  It was always that his phone didn’t work. Just one text getting through on the day of the convention and Helen might be down in the deep freeze, asleep in her pod. He could visit her the way Erskine visited his daughter. They would be together again once all the shifts were over.

  In another version of the same dream, Donald imagined that he was able to crest that hill and make it to the Tennessee side. Bombs exploded in the air; frightened people dived into their holes; a young girl sang with a voice so pure. In this fantasy, he and Helen disappeared into the same earth. They had children and grandchildren and were buried together.

  Dreams such as these haunted him when he allowed Anna to touch him, to lie in his cot for an hour before bedtime, just the sound of her breathing, her head on his chest, the smell of alcohol on both their breaths. He would lie there and tolerate it, suffer how good it felt, her hand resting on his neck, and only fall asleep after she grew uncomfortable from the cramped quarters and moved back to her own cot.
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