Shift, p.45
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       Shift, p.45

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 45


  Jimmy adjusted the headset around his ears. He lined up the jack with the socket and pressed it in until he felt a click. The lights overhead stopped their incessant throbbing and a voice came through, like the radio, only clearer.

  ‘Hello?’ the voice said.

  Jimmy didn’t say anything. He waited.

  ‘Is anyone there?’

  Jimmy cleared his throat. ‘Yes,’ he said, and it felt strange to talk to an empty room. Stranger even than the radio with its hissing. It felt as though Jimmy were talking to himself.

  ‘Is everyone okay?’ the voice asked.

  ‘No,’ Jimmy said. He remembered the stairs and falling and Yani and something awful on the other side of the door. ‘No,’ he said again, wiping tears from his cheeks. ‘Everyone is not okay!’

  There was muttering on the other side of the line. Jimmy sniffled. ‘Hello?’ he said.

  ‘What happened?’ the voice demanded. Jimmy thought it was an angry voice. Just like the people outside the door.

  ‘Everyone was running—’ Jimmy said. He wiped his nose. ‘They were all heading up. I fell. Mom and Dad—’

  ‘There were casualties?’ the man from level forty asked.

  Jimmy thought of the body he’d seen on the stairway with the awful wound on his head. He thought of the woman who had gone over the rails, her scream fading to a crisp silence. ‘Yes,’ he said.

  The voice on the line spat an angry curse, angry but faint. And then: ‘We were too late. ’ Again, it sounded distant, as if the man were talking to someone else.

  ‘Too late for what?’ Jimmy asked.

  There was a click, followed by a steady tone. The light above the socket marked ‘40’ went out.


  Jimmy waited.


  He searched inside the box for some button to press, some way to make the voices come back. There were sockets with fifty numbers above them. Why only fifty levels? He glanced at the server behind him and wondered if there were other comm stations to handle the rest of the silo. This one must be for the up top. There would be one for the mids and another for the down deep. He unplugged the jack and the tone in the headset fell silent.

  Jimmy wondered if he could call another level. Maybe one of the shops near home. He ran his finger down the row looking for ‘18’ and noticed that ‘17’ was missing. There was no jack for ‘17’. He puzzled over this as the overhead lights began to flash once more. Jimmy glanced at level forty’s socket, but it remained dark. It was the top level calling. The light over the number ‘1’ blinked on and off. Jimmy glanced at the jack in his hand, lined it up with the socket and pressed it in until he heard a click.

  ‘Hello?’ he said.

  ‘What the hell is going on over there?’ a voice demanded.

  Jimmy shrank within himself. His father had yelled at him like this before, but not for a long time. He didn’t answer because he didn’t know what to say.

  ‘Is this Jerry? Or Russ?’

  Russ was his dad. Jerry was his dad’s boss. Jimmy realised he shouldn’t be playing with these things.

  ‘This is Jimmy,’ he said.


  ‘Jimmy. The guy on level forty said they were too late. I told him what happened. ’

  ‘Too late?’ There was some distant talking. Jimmy jiggled the cord in the socket. He was doing something wrong. ‘How did you get in there?’ the man asked.

  ‘My dad let me in,’ he said, the truth frightened out of him.

  ‘We’re shutting you down,’ the voice said. ‘Shut them down right now. ’

  Jimmy didn’t know what to do. There was a hiss somewhere. He thought it was from the headset until he noticed the white steam coming from the vents overhead. A fog descended towards him. Jimmy waved his hand in front of his face, expecting the sting of smoke like he’d smelled from a fire once as a kid, but the steam didn’t smell of anything. It just tasted like a dry spoon in his mouth. Like metal.

  ‘—on my goddamn shift—’ the person in his headset said.

  Jimmy coughed. He tried to say something back but he had swallowed wrong. The steam stopped leaking from the vents.

  ‘That did it,’ the man on the other end of the line muttered. ‘He’s gone. ’

  Before Jimmy could say anything else, the winking lights inside the box went dark. There was a click in the headset and then it too fell silent. He pulled the headset off just as a louder thunk rang out in the ceiling and the lights in the room turned off. The whirring and clicking of the tall servers around him wound down. The room was pitch black and totally silent. Jimmy couldn’t see his own nose, couldn’t see his hand as he waved it in front of his face. He thought he’d gone blind, wondered if this was what being dead was like, but then he heard his pulse, a thump-thump, thump-thump in his temples.

  Jimmy felt a sob catch in his throat. He wanted his mother and father. He wanted his backpack, which he’d left behind in his classroom like an idiot. For a long while, he sat there, waiting for someone to come to him, for an idea to form on what he should do next. He thought of the ladder nearby and the room below. As he began to crawl towards that hole, cautiously patting the grating ahead of him so he wouldn’t fall down the long drop, the clunking in the ceiling came back. There was a blinding flash as the lights overhead wavered, shimmered, blinked on and off several times, then burned steady.

  Jimmy froze. The red lights were back to flashing. He went back to the box and looked inside. It was the light over ‘40’ ticking on and off. He thought about answering it, seeing what these people were so angry about, but maybe the power was a warning. Maybe he’d said something wrong.

  The lights overhead were like bright heat. They reminded him of the farms, of the time years ago that his class had gone on a trip to the mids and planted seeds beneath those grow lights.

  Jimmy turned to the server with the open back and fumbled for the jack inside. He hated the flashing lights, but he didn’t want to get yelled at. So he jabbed the headphone jack into the socket marked ‘40’ until he felt a click.

  The lights stopped blinking immediately. There was a muffled voice from the headset, which lay in the bottom of the server. Jimmy ignored that. He took a step away from the machine, watched the overhead lights warily, waited on the bright white ones to shut off again or the angry red ones to return. But everything stayed the same. The jack sat in its socket, the wire dangling, the voice in the headset distant now, unable to be heard.


  2312 – Week One

  • Silo 17 •

  JIMMY WORKED HIS way down the ladder, wondering how long it’d been since he last ate. He couldn’t remember. Breakfast before school, but that was a day ago, maybe two. Halfway down the ladder, he thought of himself as a piece of food sliding through some great metal neck. This was what a swallowed bite felt like. At the bottom of the ladder, he stood for a moment in the bowels of the silo, a hollow thing lost in a hollow thing. There would be no end to the silo’s hunger, chewing on something empty like him. They would both starve, he thought. His stomach grumbled; he needed to eat. Jimmy staggered down the dark corridor and through the silo’s guts.

  The radio on the wall continued to hiss. Jimmy turned the volume down until the spitting noise could barely be heard. His father wouldn’t be calling him ever again. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but it was a Rule of the World.

  He entered the small apartment. There was a table big enough for four with the pages of a book scattered across it, a needle and thread coiled on top like a snake guarding its nest. Jimmy thumbed the pages and saw that the place where the pages met was being repaired. His stomach hurt, it was so empty. His mind was beginning to ache as well.

  Across the room, the ghost of his father stood and pointed out doors, told him what was behind each. Jimmy patted his chest for the key, took it out, and used it to unlock the pa
ntry across from the stove. Food enough for two people for ten years, that was what his father had told him. Was that right?

  The room made a sucking sound as he cracked the pantry door, and there was the tickle of a breeze against his neck. Jimmy found the light switch on the outside of the door – as well as a switch that ran a noisy fan. He turned the fan off, which only reminded him of the radio. Inside the room, he found shelves bulging with cans that receded so far he had to squint to see the back wall. These were cans like he’d never seen before. He squeezed between the tight shelves and searched up and down, his stomach begging him to choose and be quick about it. Eat, eat, his belly growled. Jimmy said to give him a chance.

  Tomatoes and beets and squash, stuff he hated. Recipe food. He wanted food food. There were entire shelves of corn with labels like colourful sleeves of paper, not the black ink scrawled on a tin that he was used to. Jimmy grabbed one of the cans and studied it. A large man with green flesh smiled at him from the label. Tiny words like those printed in books wrapped all around. The cans of corn were identical. They made Jimmy feel out of place, like he was asleep and dreaming every bit of this.

  He kept one of the corn and found an aisle of labelled soups in red and white, grabbed one of those as well. Back in the apartment, he rummaged for an opener. There were drawers around the stove full of spatulas and serving spoons. There was a cabinet with pots and lids. A bottom drawer held charcoal pencils, a spool of thread, batteries bulging with age and covered in grey powder, a child’s whistle, a screwdriver and myriad other things.

  He found the can opener. It was rusty and appeared as if it hadn’t been used in years. But the dull cutter still sank through the soft tin when he gave it a squeeze, and the handle turned if given enough force. Jimmy worked it all the way around and cursed when the lid sank down into the soup. He fished a knife out of the drawer to lever the lid out with the tip. Food. Finally. He placed a pot onto the stove and turned the burner on, thinking of his apartment, of his mother and father. The soup heated. Jimmy waited, stomach growling, but some part of him was dimly aware that there was nothing he could put inside himself to touch the real ache, this myster-ious urge he felt every moment to scream at the top of his lungs or to collapse to the floor and cry.

  While he waited for the soup to bubble, he inspected the sheets of paper the size of small blankets hanging on one wall. It looked as if they’d been hung out to dry, and he thought at first that the thick books must be made by folding up or cutting these. But the large sheets were already printed on, the drawings continuous. Jimmy ran his hands down the smooth paper and studied the details of a schematic, an arrangement of circles with fine lines inside each and labels everywhere. There were numbers over the circles. Three of them were crossed out with red ink. Each was labelled a ‘silo’, but that didn’t make any sense.

  Behind him, a hissing like the radio, like someone calling for him, the whisperings of ghosts. Jimmy turned from the strange drawing to find his soup spitting bubbles, dripping down the edge and sizzling on the glowing-hot burner. He left the large and strange drawing alone.


  2312 – Week One

  • Silo 17 •

  DAYS PASSED UNTIL they threatened to make a week, and Jimmy could glimpse how weeks might eventually become months. Beyond the steel door in the upper room, the men outside were still trying to get in. They yelled and argued over the radio. Jimmy listened sometimes, but all they talked about were the dead and dying and forbidden things, like the great outside.

  Jimmy cycled through camera angles of quietude and vast emptiness. Sometimes these still views were interrupted with bursts of activity and violence. Jimmy saw a man held down on the ground and beaten by other men. He saw a woman dragged down a hall, feet kicking. He watched a man attack a child over a loaf of bread. He had to turn the monitor off. His heart raced the rest of the day and into the night, and he resolved not to look at the cameras any more. That night, alone in the bunk room with all the empty beds, he hardly slept. But when he did, he dreamed of his mother.

  The days would be like this, he thought the next morning. Each day would stretch out for ever, but their counting would not take long. Their counting would run out for him. His days were numbered and ticking away; he could feel it.

  He moved one of the mattresses out into the room with the computer and the radio. There was a semblance of company in that room. Angry voices and scenes of violence were better than the emptiness of the other bunks. He forgot his promise to himself and ate warm soup in front of the cameras, looking for people. He listened to their soft voices bicker on the radio. And when he dreamed that night, his dreams were filled with little square views of a distant past. A younger self stood in those windows, peering back at him.

  In forays to the room above, Jimmy crept silently to the steel door and listened to men argue on the other side. They tried codes, three beeping entries at a time, followed by three angry buzzes. Jimmy rubbed the steel door and thanked it for staying shut.

  Padding away quietly, he explored the grid of machines. They whirred and clicked and blinked their flashing eyes, but they didn’t say anything. They didn’t move. Their presence made Jimmy feel even more alone, like a classroom of large boys who all ignored him. Just a handful of days like this and Jimmy felt a new Rule of the World: man wasn’t meant to live alone. This was what he discovered, day by day. He discovered it and just as soon forgot, for there was no one around to remind him. He spoke with the machines instead. They clacked back at him and hissed deep in their metal throats that man wasn’t supposed to live at all.

  The voices on the radio seemed to believe this. They reported deaths and promised more of them for each other. Some of them had guns from the deputy stations. There was a man on the ninety-first who wanted to make sure everyone else knew he had a gun. Jimmy felt like telling this man about the storage facility his key had unlocked beyond the bunk room. There were racks and racks of guns like the one his father had used to kill Yani. And countless boxes of bullets. He felt like telling the entire silo that he had more guns than anyone, that he had the key to the silo, so please stay away, but something told him that these men would just try harder to reach him if he did. So Jimmy kept his secrets to himself.
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