Shift, p.42
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       Shift, p.42
 

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 42

 

  This caused a chorus of whispers. It sounded like wind striking a visor, peppering it with sand. Donald stared at the screen, at a lifeless hill as seen from silo eighteen. The dust came in dark waves. He remembered what it had felt like out there on that landscape, the difficulty of moving in one of those suits, the hard slog up that gentle rise. Who was this cleaner, and where did she think she was going?

  ‘Get me the file on this cleaner as soon as you can,’ he said. The others fell still and stopped their whispering arguments. Donald’s voice was commanding because of its quietude, because of who they thought he was. ‘And I want whatever we have on seventeen. ’ He glanced at the operator, whose brow was furrowed by either worry or suspicion. ‘To refresh my memory,’ he added.

  Eren rested a hand on the back of Donald’s chair. ‘What about the protocols?’ he asked. ‘Shouldn’t we scramble a drone or send someone after her? Or shut down eighteen? There’s going to be violence over there. We’ve never had a cleaning not go through before. ’

  Donald shook his head, which was beginning to clear. He looked down at his hand and remembered tearing off a glove once, there on the outside. He shouldn’t be alive. He wondered what Thurman would do, what the old man would order. But he wasn’t Thurman. Someone had told him once that people like Donald should be in charge. And now here he was.

  ‘We don’t do anything just yet,’ he said, coughing and clearing his throat. ‘She won’t get far. ’

  The others stared at him with a mixture of shock and acceptance. There finally came a handful of nods. They assumed he knew best. He had been woken up to control the situation. It was all according to protocol. The system could be trusted – it was designed to just go. All anyone needed to do was their own job and let others handle the rest.

  63

  2345

  • Silo 1 •

  IT WAS A short walk from his apartment to the central offices, which Donald assumed was the point. It reminded him of a CEO’s office he’d once seen with an adjoining bedroom. What had seemed impressive at first became sad after realising why it was there.

  He rapped his knuckles on the open door marked Office for Psychological Services. He used to think of these people as shrinks, that they were here to keep others sane. Now he knew that they were in charge of the insanity. All he saw on the door any more was ‘OPS’. Operations. The head of the head of the heads. The office across the hall was where the drudge work landed. Donald was reminded how each silo had a mayor for shaking hands and keeping up appearances, just as the world of before had presidents who came and went. Meanwhile, it was the men in the shadows who wielded the true power, those whose terms had no limits. That this silo operated by the same deceit should not be surprising; it was the only way such men knew how to run anything.

  He kept his back to his former office and knocked a little louder. Eren looked up from his computer and a hard mask of concentration melted into a wan smile. ‘Come in,’ he said as he rose from his seat. ‘You need the desk?’

  ‘Yes, but stay. ’ Donald crossed the room gingerly, his legs still half asleep, and noticed that while his own whites were crisp, Eren’s were crumpled with the wear of a man well into his six-month shift. Even so, the Ops head appeared vigorous and alert. His beard was neatly trimmed by his neck and only peppered with grey. He helped Donald into the plush chair behind the desk.

  ‘We’re still waiting for the full report on this cleaner,’ Eren said. ‘The head of eighteen warned that it’s a thick one. ’

  ‘Priors?’ Donald imagined anyone sent to clean would have priors.

  ‘Oh, yeah. The word is that she was a sheriff. Not sure if I’m buying it. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first lawman to want out. ’

  ‘But it would be the first time anyone’s gotten out of sight,’ Donald said.

  ‘From what I understand, yeah. ’ Eren crossed his arms and leaned against the desk. ‘Nearest anyone got before now was that gentleman you stopped. I reckon that’s why protocol says to wake you. I’ve heard some of the boys refer to you as the Shepherd. ’ Eren laughed.

  Donald flinched at the nickname. ‘Tell me about seventeen,’ he said, changing the subject. ‘Who was on shift when that silo went down?’

  ‘We can look it up. ’ Eren waved a hand at the keyboard.

  ‘My, uh, fingers are still a little tingly,’ Donald said. He slid the keyboard towards Eren, who hesitated before getting off the desk. The Ops head bent over the keys and pulled up the shift list with a shortcut. Donald tried to follow along with what he was doing on the screen. These were files he didn’t have access to, menus he was unfamiliar with.

  ‘Looks like it was Cooper. I think I came off a shift once as he was coming on. Name sounds familiar. I sent someone down to get those files for you as well. ’

  ‘Good, good. ’

  Eren raised his eyebrows. ‘You went over the reports on seventeen on your last shift, right?’

  Donald had no clue if Thurman had been up since then. For all he knew, the old man had been awake when it happened. ‘It’s hard to keep everything straight,’ he said, which was solid truth. ‘How many years has it been?’

  ‘That’s right. You were in the deep freeze, weren’t you?’

  Donald supposed he was. Eren tapped the desk with his finger, and Donald’s gaze drifted to the man across the hall, sitting behind his computer. He remembered what it had been like to be that man nominally in charge, wondering what the doctors in white were discussing across the way. Now he was one of those in white.

  ‘Yes, I was in the deep freeze,’ Donald said. They wouldn’t have moved his body, would they? Erskine or someone could’ve simply changed entries in a database. Maybe it was that simple. Just a quick hack, two reference numbers transposed, and one man lives the life of another. ‘I like to be near my daughter,’ he explained.

  ‘Yeah, I don’t blame you. ’ The wrinkles in Eren’s brow smoothed. ‘I’ve got a wife down there. I still make the mistake of visiting her first thing every shift. ’ He took a deep breath then pointed at the screen. ‘Seventeen was lost over thirty years ago. I’d have to look it up to be exact. The cause is still unclear. There wasn’t any sign of unrest leading up to it, so we didn’t have much time to react. There was a cleaning scheduled, but the airlock opened a day early and out of sequence. Could’ve been a glitch or tampering. We just don’t know. Sensors reported a gas purge in the lower levels and then a riot surging up. We pulled the plug as they were scrambling out of the airlock. Barely had time. ’

  Donald recalled silo twelve. That facility had ended in similar fashion. He remembered people scattering on the hillside, a plume of white mist, some of them turning and fighting to get back inside. ‘No survivors?’ he asked.

  ‘There were a few stragglers. We lost the radio feed and the cameras but continued to put in a routine call over there, just in case anyone was in the safe room. ’

  Donald nodded. By the book. He remembered the calls to twelve after it went down. He remembered nobody answering.

  ‘Someone did pick up the day the silo fell,’ Eren said. ‘I think it was some young shadow or tech. I haven’t read the transcripts in for ever. ’ He paged down on the shift report. ‘It looks like we sent the collapse codes soon after that call, just as a precaution. So even if the cleaner gets over there, she’s gonna find a hole in the ground. ’

  ‘Maybe she’ll keep walking,’ Donald said. ‘What silo sits on the other side? Sixteen?’

  Eren nodded.

  ‘Why don’t you go give them a call?’ Donald tried to remember the layout of the silos. These were the kinds of things he’d be expected to know. ‘And get in touch with the silos on either side of seventeen, just in case our cleaner takes a turn. ’

  ‘Will do. ’

  Eren stood, and Donald marvelled again at being treated as if he were in charge. It was already beginning to make him feel as if he really were.
Just like being elected to Congress, all that awesome responsibility foisted on him overnight—

  Eren leaned across the desk and hit two of the function keys on the keyboard, logging himself out of the computer. The Ops head hurried out into the hall while Donald stared at a login and password prompt.

  Suddenly he felt very much less in charge.

  64

  2345

  • Silo 1 •

  ACROSS THE HALL, a man sat behind a desk that once had belonged to Donald. Donald peered up at this man and found him peering right back. Donald used to gaze across that hallway in the opposite direction. And while this man in his former office – who was heavier than Donald and had less hair – likely sat there playing a game of solitaire, Donald struggled with a puzzle of his own.

  His old login of Troy wouldn’t work. He tried old ATM codes and they were just as useless. He sat, thinking, worried about performing too many incorrect attempts. It felt like just yesterday that this account had worked. But a lot had happened since then. A lot of shifts. And someone had tampered with them.

  It pointed back to Erskine, the old Brit left behind to coordinate the shifts. Erskine had taken a liking to him. But what was the point? What was he expecting Donald to do?

  For a brief moment, he thought about standing up and walking out into the hallway and saying, I am not Thurman or Shepherd or Troy. My name is Donald, and I’m not supposed to be here.

  He should tell the truth. He should rage with the truth, as senseless as it would seem to everyone else. I am Donald! he felt like screaming, just as old man Hal once had. They could pin his boots to a gurney and put him back to glorious sleep. They could send him out to the hills. They could bury him like they’d buried his wife. But he would scream and scream until he believed it himself, that he was who he thought he was.

  Instead, he tried Erskine’s name with his own passkey. Another red warning that the login was incorrect, and the desire to out himself passed as swiftly as it had come.

  He studied the monitor. There didn’t seem to be a trigger for the number of incorrect tries, but how long before Eren came back? How long before he had to explain that he couldn’t log in? Maybe he could go across the hall, interrupt the silo head’s game of solitaire and ask him to retrieve his key. He could blame it on being groggy and newly awake. That excuse had been working thus far. He wondered how long he could cling to it.

  On a lark, he tried the combination of Thurman and his own passkey of 2156.

  The login screen disappeared, replaced by a main menu. The sense that he was the wrong person deepened. Donald wiggled his toes. The extra space in his loose boots gave him comfort. On the screen, a familiar envelope flashed. Thurman had messages.

  Donald clicked the icon and scrolled down to the oldest unread message, something that might explain how he had arrived there, something from Thurman’s prior shift. The dates went back centuries; it was jarring to watch them scroll by. Population reports. Automated messages. Replies and forwards. He saw a message from Erskine, but it was just a note about the overflow of deep freeze to one of the lower cryopod levels. The useless bodies were stacking up, it seemed. Another message further down was starred as important. Victor’s name was in the senders column, which caught Donald’s attention. It had to be from before Donald’s second shift. Victor was already dead the last time Donald had been woken. He opened the message.

  Old friend,

  I’m sure you will question what I’m about to do, that you will see this as a violation of our pact, but I see it more as a restructuring of the timeline. New facts have emerged that push things up a bit. For me, at least. Your time will come.

  I have in recent days discovered why one of our facilities has seen more than its share of turmoil. There is someone there who remembers, and she both disturbs and confirms what I know of humanity. Room is made that it might be filled. Fear is spread because the clean-up is addicting. Seeing this, much of what we do to one another becomes more obvious. It explains the great quandary of why the most depressed societies are those with the fewest wants. Arriving at the truth, I feel an urge from older times to synthesise a theory and present it to roomfuls of professionals. Instead, I have gone to a dusty room to procure a gun.

  You and I have spent much of our adult lives scheming to save the world. Several adult lives, in fact. That deed now done, I ponder a different question, one that I fear I cannot answer and that we were never brave nor bold enough to pose. And so I ask you now, dear friend: was this world worth saving to begin with? Were we worth saving?

  This endeavour was launched with that great assumption taken for granted. Now I ask myself for the first time. And while I view the cleansing of the world as our defining achievement, this business of saving humanity may have been our gravest mistake. The world may be better off without us. I have not the will to decide. I leave that to you. The final shift, my friend, is yours, for I have worked my last. I do not envy you the choice you will have to make. The pact we formed so long ago haunts me as never before. And I feel that what I’m about to do . . . that this is the easy way.

  —Vincent Wayne DiMarco

  Donald read the last paragraph again. It was a suicide note. Thurman had known. All along, while Donald wrestled with Victor’s fate on his last shift, Thurman had known. He had this note in his possession and hadn’t shared it. And Donald had almost grown convinced that Victor had been murdered. Unless the note was a fake— But no, Donald shook that thought away. Paranoia like that could spiral out of control and know no end. He had to cling to something.

  He backed out of the message with a heavy heart and scrolled up the list, looking for some other clue. Near the top of the screen was a message with the subject line: Urgent – The Pact. Donald clicked the message open. The body was short. It read, simply:
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