Shift, p.32
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       Shift, p.32

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 32


  In the morning, she would sing in the shower, steam billowing into the war room, while Donald returned to his studies. He would log on to her computer where he was able to dig through the files in Victor’s personal directories. He could see when these files had been created, accessed and how often. One of the oldest and most recently opened was a list with all the silos ranked in order. Number eighteen was near the top, but it wasn’t clear if this was a measure of trouble or worth. And why rank them to begin with? For what purpose?

  He also used Anna’s computer to search for his sister Charlotte. She wasn’t listed in the pods below, nor under any name or picture that he could find. But she had been there during orientation. He remembered her being led off with the other women and being put to sleep. And now she seemed to have vanished. But to where?

  So many questions. He stared at the two reports, the awful, dead sound of static leaking from the radio, the weight of all the earth above pushing down upon him, and he began to wonder, if he fixated on Victor’s notes too closely, if perhaps he would reach the same conclusion.


  • Silo 1 •

  WHEN HE COULD no longer look at the notes, Donald went for what had become his customary stroll among the guns and drones in the storeroom. This was his escape from the hiss of the radio static and the cramped confines of their makeshift home, and it was during these laps that he came nearest to clearing his head from his dreams, from the prior night’s bottle of Scotch, and from the mix of emotions he was beginning to feel for Anna.

  Most of all, he walked those laps and tried to make sense of this new world. He puzzled over what Thurman and Victor had planned for the silos. Five hundred years below ground, and then what? Donald desperately wanted to know. And here was when he felt truly alive: when he was taking action, when he was digging for answers. It was the same fleeting sense of power he had felt from refusing their pills, from staining his fingers blue and tonguing the ulcers that formed in his cheeks.

  During these aimless wanderings, he looked through the many plastic crates lining the floors and walls of the huge room. He found the one with the missing firearm, the one he assumed Victor had stolen. The airtight seal was broken and the other guns inside reeked of grease. Some crates, he discovered, contained folded uniforms and suits like astronauts wore, vacuum sealed in thick plastic; others held helmets with large domes and metal collars. There were flashlights with red lenses, food and medical kits, backpacks, rounds and rounds of ammo, and myriad other devices and gadgets he could only guess at. He had found a laminated map in one crate, a chart of the fifty silos. There were red lines that radiated from the silos, one from each, and met at a single point in the distance. Donald had traced the lines with his finger, holding the map up to catch the light spilling from the distant office. He had puzzled over it and then put it back in its place, clues to a mystery he couldn’t define.

  This time, he stopped during his lap to perform a set of jumping jacks in the wide aisles between the sleeping drones. The exercise had been a struggle just two days ago, but the chill seemed to be melting from his veins. And the more he pushed himself, the more awake and alert he seemed to become. He did seventy-five, ten more than yesterday. After catching his breath, he dropped down to see how many push-ups he could do on his atrophied muscles. And it was here, on the third day of his captivity, his face barely an inch above the steel floor, that he discovered the launch lift, a garage door that barely came to his waist but was wide enough to handle the wingspan of the drones lurking beneath the tarps.

  Donald rose from his push-up and approached the low door. The entire storehouse was kept incredibly dim, this wall almost pitch black. He thought about going for one of the flashlights when he saw the red handle. A tug, and the corrugated door slid up into the wall. On his hands and knees, Donald explored the cavity beyond, which went back over a dozen feet. There were no buttons or levers that he could feel along the walls, no method of operating the lift.

  Curious, he crawled out to grab a flashlight. As he turned, he spotted another door along the darkened wall. Donald tried the handle and found it unlocked, a dim hallway beyond. He fumbled for a light switch and the overhead bulbs flickered hesitantly. He crept inside and pulled the door shut behind him.

  The hallway ran fifty paces to a door at the far end, a pair of doors on either side. More offices, he assumed, similar to the home Anna had carved out in the back of the warehouse. He tried the first door and the odour of mothballs wafted out. Inside, there were rows of bunks, the shuffle of recent footsteps in a layer of dust, and a gap where two small beds formerly lay. The absence of people could be felt. He peeked into the door across the hall and found bathroom stalls and a cluster of showers.

  The next two doors were more of the same, except for a row of urinals in the bathroom. Perhaps people had lived down there to keep up with the munitions, but Donald didn’t remember anyone coming to that level during his first shift. No, these were quarters kept for another time, much like the machines beneath the tarps. He left the bathroom to the ghosts and checked the door at the end of the hall.

  Inside, he found sheets of plastic thrown over tables and chairs, a fine mist of dust settled on top. Donald approached one of the tables and saw the computer display beneath the sheet. The chairs were attached to the desks, and there was something familiar about the knobs and levers. He knelt and fumbled for the edge of the plastic and peeled it up noisily.

  The flight controls took him back to another life. Here was the stick his sister had called a yoke, the pedals beneath the seat she had called something else, the throttle and all the other dials and indicators. Donald remembered touring her training facility after she graduated from flight school. They had flown to Colorado for her ceremony. He remembered watching a screen just like this as her drone took to the air and joined a formation of others. He remembered the view of Colorado from the nose of her graceful machine in flight.

  He glanced around the room at the dozen or so stations. The obvious need for the place slammed into him. He imagined voices in the hallway, men and women showering and chatting, towels being snapped at asses, someone looking to borrow a razor, a shift of pilots sitting at these desks where coffee could lie perfectly still in steaming mugs as death was rained down from above.

  Donald returned the plastic sheet. He thought of his sister, asleep and hidden some levels below where he couldn’t find her, and he wondered if she hadn’t been brought there as a surprise for him at all. Maybe she had been brought as a surprise for some future others.

  And suddenly, thinking of her, thinking of a time lost to dreams and lonely tears, Donald found himself patting his pockets in search of something. Pills. An old prescription with her name on it. Helen had forced him to see a doctor, hadn’t she? And Donald suddenly knew why he couldn’t forget, why their drugs didn’t work on him. The realisation came with a powerful longing to find his sister. Charlotte was the why. She was the answer to one of Thurman’s riddles.


  • Silo 1 •

  ‘I WANT TO see her first,’ Donald demanded. ‘Let me see her, and then I’ll tell you. ’

  He waited for Thurman or Dr Sneed to reply. The three of them stood in Sneed’s office on the cryopod wing. Donald had bargained his way down the lift with Thurman, and now he bargained further. He suspected it was his sister’s medication that explained why he couldn’t forget. He would exchange this discovery for another. He wanted to know where she was, wanted to see her.

  Something unspoken passed between the two men. Thurman turned to Donald with a warning. ‘She will not be woken,’ he said. ‘Not even for this. ’

  Donald nodded. He saw how only those who made the laws were allowed to break them.

  Dr Sneed turned to the computer on his desk. ‘I’ll look her up. ’

  ‘No need,’ Thurman said. ‘I know where she is. ’

  He led them out of the office and do
wn the hall, past the main shift rooms where Donald had awoken as Troy all those years ago, past the deep freeze where he had spent a century asleep, all the way to another door just like the others.

  The code Thurman entered was different; Donald could tell by the discordant four-note song the buttons made. Above the keypad in small stencilled letters he made out the words Emergency Personnel. Locks whirred and ground like old bones, and the door gradually opened.

  Steam followed them inside, the warm air from the hallway hitting the mortuary cool. There were fewer than a dozen rows of pods, perhaps fifty or sixty units in total, little more than a full shift. Donald peered into one of the coffin-like units, the ice a spiderweb of blue and white on the glass, and saw inside a thick and chiselled visage. A frozen soldier, or so his imagination told him.

  Thurman led them through the rows and columns before stopping at one of the pods. He rested his hands on its surface with something like affection. His exhalations billowed into the air. It made his white hair and stark beard appear as though they were frosted with ice.

  ‘Charlotte,’ Donald breathed, peering in at his sister. She hadn’t changed, hadn’t aged a bit. Even the blue cast of her skin seemed normal and expected. He was growing used to seeing people this way.

  He rubbed the small window to clear the web of frost and marvelled at his thin hands and seemingly fragile joints. He had atrophied. He had grown older while his sister had remained the same.

  ‘I locked her away like this once,’ he said, gazing in at her. ‘I locked her away in my memory like this when she went off to war. Our parents did the same. She was just little Charla. ’

  Glancing away from her, he studied the two men on the other side of the pod. Sneed started to say something, but Thurman placed a hand on the doctor’s arm. Donald turned back to his sister.

  ‘Of course, she grew up more than we knew. She was killing people over there. We talked about it years later, after I was in office and she’d figured I’d grown up enough. ’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘My kid sister, waiting for me to grow up. ’

  A tear plummeted to the frozen pane of glass. The salt cut through the ice and left a clear track behind. Donald wiped it away with a squeak, then felt frightened he might disturb her.

  ‘They would get her up in the middle of the night,’ he said. ‘Whenever a target was deemed . . . what did she call it? Actionable. They would get her up. She said it was strange to go from dreaming to killing. How none of it made sense. How she would go back to sleep and see the video feeds in her mind – that last view from an incoming missile as she guided it into its target—’

  He took a breath and gazed up at Thurman.

  ‘I thought it was good that she couldn’t be hurt, you know? She was safe in a trailer somewhere, not up there in the sky. But she complained about it. She told her doctor that it didn’t feel right, being safe and doing what she did. The people on the front lines, they had fear as an excuse. They had self-preservation. A reason to kill. Charlotte used to kill people and then go to the mess hall and eat a piece of pie. That’s what she told her doctor. She would eat something sweet and not be able to taste it. ’

  ‘What doctor was this?’ Sneed asked.

  ‘My doctor,’ Donald said. He wiped his cheek, but he wasn’t ashamed of the tears. Being by his sister’s side had him feeling brave and bold, less alone. He could face the past and the future, both. ‘Helen was worried about my re-election. Charlotte already had a prescription, had been diagnosed with PTSD after her first tour, and so we kept filling it under her name, even under her insurance. ’

  Sneed waved his hand, stirring the air for more information. ‘What prescription?’

  ‘Propra,’ Thurman said. ‘She’d been taking propra, hadn’t she? And you were worried about the press finding out that you were self-medicating. ’

  Donald nodded. ‘Helen was worried. She thought it might come out that I was taking something for my . . . wilder thoughts. The pills helped me forget them, kept me level. I could study the Order, and all I saw were the words, not the implications. There was no fear. ’ He looked at his sister, understanding finally why she had refused to take the meds. She wanted the fear. It was necessary somehow, had made her feel more human.

  ‘I remember you telling me she was on them,’ Thurman said. ‘We were in the bookstore—’

  ‘Do you remember your dosage?’ Sneed asked. ‘How long were you on it?’

  ‘I started taking it after I was given the Order to read. ’ He watched Thurman for any hint of expression and got nothing. ‘I guess that was two or three years before the convention. I took them nearly every day right up until then. ’ He turned to Sneed. ‘I would’ve had some on me during orientation if I hadn’t lost them on the hill that day. I think I fell. I remember falling—’

  Sneed turned to Thurman. ‘There’s no telling what the complications might be. Victor was careful to screen psychotropics from administrative personnel. Everyone was tested—’

  ‘I wasn’t,’ Donald said.

  Sneed faced him. ‘Everyone was tested. ’

  ‘Not him. ’ Thurman studied the surface of the pod. ‘There was a last-minute change. A switch. I vouched for him. And if he was getting them in her name, there wouldn’t have been anything in his medical records. ’

  ‘We need to tell Erskine,’ Sneed said. ‘I could work with him. We might come up with a new formulation. This could explain some of the immunities in other silos. ’ He turned away from the pod as if he needed to get back to his office.

  Thurman looked to Donald. ‘Do you need more time down here?’

  Donald studied his sister for a moment. He wanted to wake her, to talk to her. Maybe he could come back another time just to visit.
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