Shift, p.35
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       Shift, p.35

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 35


  Her wan smile caught in the spill of Joel’s flashlight before the bag was sealed up over Mission’s face.

  ‘Or at least until Upper Dispatch,’ Joel added.

  They carried him outside and down the hall, and the porters made way for the dead. Several hands reached out and touched Mission through the black plastic, showing respect, and he fought not to flinch or cough. It felt as though the smoke was trapped in the bag with him.

  Joel took the lead, which meant Mission’s shoulders were pressed against his. He faced upward, his body swaying in time to their steps, the straps beneath his armpits pulling the opposite way from what he was used to. It grew more comfortable as they hit the stairs and began the long spiral up. His feet were lowered until the blood no longer pooled in his head. Lyn carried her half of his weight from several steps below.

  The dark and quiet overtook him as they left the chaos of Lower Dispatch. The two porters didn’t talk as some tandems might. They saved their breath and kept their thoughts to themselves. Joel set an aggressive pace. Mission could sense it in the gentle swaying of his body, suspended above the steel treads.

  As the steps passed, the journey grew more and more uncomfortable. It wasn’t the difficulty breathing, for he had been shadowed well to manage his lungs on a long climb. He could also handle the stuffiness from the plastic pressed against his face. Nor was it the dark, for his favourite hour for porting had always been the dim-time, time alone with his thoughts while others slept. It wasn’t the stench of plastic and smoke, the tickle in his throat or the pain of the straps.

  It was the act of lying still. Of being carried. Of being a burden.

  The straps pinched his shoulders until his arms fell numb, and he swayed in the darkness, the sounds of boots on steel, of Joel and Lyn’s heavy breathing, as he was lifted up the stairwell. Too great a burden, he thought.

  He thought of his mother carrying him for all those months with no one to confide in and no one to support her. Not until his father had found out, and by then it was too late to terminate the pregnancy. He wondered how long his father had hated the bulge in her belly, how long he had wanted to cut Mission out like some kind of cancer. Mission had never asked to be carried like that. And he had never wanted to be ported by anyone ever again.

  Two years ago to the day. That was the last time he had felt this, this sense of being a burden to all. Two years since he had proved too much for even a rope to bear.

  It was a poor knot he had tied. But his hands had been trembling and he had fought to see the knot through a film of tears. When it failed, the knot didn’t come free so much as slide, and it left his neck afire and bleeding. His great regret was having jumped from the lower stairwell in Mechanical, the rope looped over the pipes above. If he had gone from a landing, the slipping knot wouldn’t have mattered. The fall would’ve claimed him.

  Now he was too scared to try again. He was as scared of trying again as he was of being a burden to another. Was that why he avoided seeing Allie, because she longed to care for him? To help support him? Was that why he ran away from home?

  The tears finally came. His arms were pinned, so he couldn’t wipe them away. He thought of his mother, about whom he could only piece together a few details. But he knew this of her: she hadn’t been afraid of life or death. She had embraced both in an act of sacrifice, giving her own blood for his, a trade he would never feel worthy of.

  The silo spun slowly around him; the steps sank one at a time; and Mission endured the suffering. He laboured not to sob, seeing himself for the first time in that utter darkness, knowing his soul more fully in that deathly ritual of being ported to his grave, this sad awakening on his birthday.


  • Silo 1 •

  FINDING ONE AMONG ten thousand should’ve been more difficult. It should have taken months of crawling through reports and databases, of querying the head of eighteen and asking for personality profiles, of looking at arrest histories, cleaning schedules, who was related to whom, and all the gossip and chatter compiled from monthly reports.

  But Donald found an easier way. He simply searched the database for a facsimile of himself.

  One who remembered. One full of fear and paranoia. One who tries to blend in but is subversive. He looked for a fear of doctors, teasing out those residents who never went to see them. He looked for someone who shunned medication and found one who did not even trust the water. A part of him expected he might find several people to be causing so much havoc, a pack, and that locating one among them would lead to the rest. He expected to find them young and outraged with some way of handing down what they knew from generation to generation. What he found instead was both eerily similar and not like him at all.

  The next morning, he showed his results to Thurman, who stood perfectly still for a long while.

  ‘Of course,’ he finally said. ‘Of course. ’

  A hand on Donald’s shoulder was all the congratulations he got. Thurman explained that the reset was well underway. He admitted that it had been underway since Donald had been woken, that the head of eighteen had taken on new recruits, had sown the seeds of discord. Erskine and Dr Sneed were working through the night to make changes, to come up with a new formulation, but this component might take weeks. Looking over what Donald had found, he said he was going to make a call to eighteen.

  ‘I want to come with you,’ Donald said. ‘It’s my theory after all. ’

  What he wanted to say was that he wouldn’t take the coward’s way. If someone was to be executed on his account – one life for the sake of many – he didn’t want to hide from the decision.

  Thurman agreed.

  They rode the lift almost as equals. Donald asked why Thurman had started the reset, but he thought he knew the answer.

  ‘Vic won,’ was Thurman’s reply.

  Donald thought of all the lives in the database that were now thrown into chaos. He made the mistake of asking how the reset was going, and Thurman told him about the bombs and the violence, how the groups who wore different colours were warring with one another, how these things typically went downhill fast with the barest of nudges, that the formula was as old as time.

  ‘The combustibles are always there,’ Thurman said. ‘You’d be surprised at how few sparks it takes. ’

  They exited the lift and walked down a familiar hallway. This was Donald’s old commute. Here, he had worked under a different name. He had worked without knowing what he was doing. They passed offices full of people tapping on keyboards and chatting with one another. Half a millennium of people coming on and off shifts, doing what they were told, following orders.

  He couldn’t help himself as they approached his old office: he paused at the door and peered in. A thin man with a halo of hair that wrapped from ear to ear, just a few wisps on top, looked up at him. He sat there, mouth agape, hand resting on his mouse, waiting for Donald to say or do something.

  Donald nodded a sympathetic hello. He turned and looked through the door across the hall where a man in white sat behind a similar desk. The puppeteer. Thurman spoke to him, and he got up from his desk and joined them in the hall. He knew that Thurman was in charge.

  Donald followed the two of them to the comm room, leaving the balding man at his old desk to his game of solitaire. He felt a mix of sympathy and envy for the man – for those who didn’t remember. As they turned the corner, Donald thought back to those initial bouts of awareness on his first shift. He remembered speaking with a doctor who knew the truth, and having this sense of wonder that anyone could cope with such knowledge. And now he saw that it wasn’t that the pain grew tolerable or the confusion went away. Instead, it simply became familiar. It became a part of you.

  The comm room was quiet. Heads swivelled as the three of them entered. One of the operators in orange hurriedly removed his feet from his desk. Another took a bite of his protein bar and turned back to his

  ‘Get me eighteen,’ Thurman said.

  Eyes turned to the other man in white, the one supposedly in charge, and he waved his consent. A call was patched through. Thurman held half a headset to one ear while he waited. He caught the expression on Donald’s face and asked the operator for another set. Donald stepped forward and took it while the cable was slotted into the receiver. He could hear the familiar beeping of a call being placed, and his stomach fluttered as doubts began to surface. Finally, a voice answered. A shadow.

  Thurman asked him to get Mr Wyck, the silo head.

  ‘He’s already coming,’ the shadow said.

  When Wyck joined the conversation, Thurman told the head what Donald had discovered, but it was the shadow who responded. The shadow knew the one they were after. He said he knew the person well. There was something in his voice, some shock or hesitation, and Thurman waved at the operator to get the sensors in his headset going. Suddenly, the monitors were providing feedback like a Rite of Initiation. Thurman conducted the questioning and Donald watched a master at work.

  ‘Tell me what you know,’ he said. Thurman leaned over the operator and peered at a screen that monitored skin conductivity, pulse and perspiration. Donald was no expert at reading the charts, but he knew something was up by the way the lines spiked up and down when the shadow spoke. He feared for the young man. He wondered if someone would die then and there.

  But Thurman took a softer approach. He got the boy speaking of his childhood, had him admitting to the rage he harboured, a sense of not belonging. The shadow spoke of an upbringing both ideal and frustrating, and Thurman was like a gentle but firm drill sergeant working with a troubled recruit: tearing him down, building him back up.

  ‘You’ve been fed the truth,’ he told the young man, referring to the Legacy. ‘And now you see why the truth must be divvied out carefully or not at all. ’

  ‘I do. ’

  The shadow sniffed as though he were crying. And yet: the jagged lines on the screen formed less precipitous peaks, less dangerous valleys.

  Thurman spoke of sacrifice, of the greater good, of individual lives proving meaningless in the far stretch of time. He took that shadow’s rage and redirected it until the torture of being locked up for months with the books of the Legacy was distilled down to its very essence. And through it all, it didn’t sound as though the silo head breathed once.

  ‘Tell me what needs to be fixed,’ Thurman said, after their discussion. He laid the problem at the shadow’s feet. Donald saw how this was better than simply handing him the solution.

  The shadow spoke of a culture forming that overvalued individuality, of children that wanted to get away from their families, of generations living levels apart and independence stressed until no one relied on anyone and everyone was dispensable.

  The sobs came. Donald watched as Thurman’s face tightened, and he wondered again if he was about to see the young man put out of his misery. Instead, Thurman released the radio and said to those gathered around, simply, ‘He’s ready. ’

  And what started as an inquiry, a test of Donald’s theory, concluded this boy’s Rite of Initiation. A shadow became a man. Lines on a screen settled into steel cords of resolve as his anger was given a new focus, a new purpose. His childhood was seen differently. Dangerously.

  Thurman gave this young man his first order. Mr Wyck congratulated the boy and told him he would be allowed to go, would be given his freedom. And later, as Donald and Thurman rode the lift back towards Anna, Thurman declared that in the years to come, this Rodny would make a fine silo head. Even better than the last.


  • Silo 1 •

  THAT AFTERNOON, DONALD and Anna worked to restore order to the war room. They made it ready in case it was called upon in a future shift. All their notes were taken off the walls and filed away into airtight plastic crates, and Donald imagined these would sit on another level somewhere, in another storeroom, to gather dust. The computers were unplugged, all the wiring coiled up, and these were hauled off by Erskine on a cart with squeaky wheels. All that was left were the cots, a change of clothes and the standard-issue toiletries. Enough to get them through the night and to their meeting with Dr Sneed the following day.

  Several shifts were about to come to a close. For Anna and Thurman, it had been a long time coming. Two full shifts. Almost a year awake. Erskine and Sneed would need a few weeks to finish their work, and by that time the next head would come on, and the schedule would return to normal. For Donald, it had been less than a week awake after a century of sleep. He was a dead man who had blinked his eyes open for a brief moment.

  He took his last shower and his first dose of the bitter drink so that no one would think anything was amiss. But Donald didn’t plan on going under again. If he went back to the deep freeze, he knew they would never wake him again. Unless things were so bad that he wouldn’t want to be woken anyway. Unless it were Anna once more, lonely, wishing for company and willing to subject him to abuse in order to get it.

  That wasn’t sleep. That was a body and a mind stored away. There were other choices, more final escapes. Donald had discovered this resolve by following the trail of clues left behind by Victor, and he would soon join him in death.

  He walked a final lap amid the guns and drones before finally retiring to his cot. He thought of Helen as he lay there listening to Anna sing in the shower one last time. And he realised the anger he had felt for his wife having lived and loved without him had now dissipated, wiped away by his guilt for coming to find solace in Anna’s embrace. And when she came to him that night, straight from the shower with water beading on her flesh, he could not resist any longer. They had the same bitter drink on their breath, that concoction that prepped their veins for the deep sleep, and neither of them cared. Donald succumbed. And then he waited until she had returned to her cot and her breathing had softened before he cried himself to sleep.
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